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June 12, 2011 Deciphering the role of microbes in the ocean

That's what microbial oceanography is. And that is the last project at Palmer Station that I will be reporting on before I reveal our findings on the icefish and thermal tolerance. Near last, but not least. Did you know that there are 1 billion, yes billion, bacterial cells in a liter of ocean water? Do you know how big a billion is? Let's get some perspective. A billion seconds ago? Take a guess. That's almost 32 years, so like around 1972, A billion hours ago was the Stone Age. Get the picture? A LOT.

Dr. Matt Cottrell, Palmer Station, Antarctica
Here is Dr. Matt Cottrell in the lab down in Antarctica. Photo courtesy of Lisa Crockett

Matthew T. Cottrell, Mrina Nikrad, and Jill Mikucki are down here studying microbial oceanography. A microbe is anything living that you need a microscope to see...but we are not including viruses in this. Why not, you say? Most scientists don't view viruses as living as it has no independent metabolism. There are some scientists that do not agree with this, so for our purposes, we will go with the non-living category. Seems like an excellent thing to do some additional research on and develop your own opinion...based on the evidence you find. A microbe that causes disease is called a pathogen.

Mrina Nikrad, Palmer Station, Antarctica
Mrina Nikrad is suited up for the cold in her Mustang Suit. Those containers hold water samples collected from various coordinates around Palmer Station. Photo courtesy of Matt Cottrell.
Jill Mikucki, Antarctica
Jill Mikucki braves the high seas to get the samples she needs despite her bouts with sea sickness. Now that's dedication.

Now these microbes have been around for a long time. They were among the first forms of life on earth, which means they have been around about 3.5 billion years ago. Because of how quickly they reproduce, in a matter of days, or less, you have new generations very quickly meaning they have had more opportunity for diversification than pretty much anything else.

Despite the fact that these microbes are microscopic, they account for 10 times more biomass than whales in the Barents Sea up in the Arctic. Translation: If you took all microbes up there and weighed them they would weigh more than all of the whales in the Barents Sea. I know, mind-boggling.

So Matt, Mrina, and Jill are studying different aspects of what these microbes are up to because we really don't know. They are examining the impact that microbes and their metabolism have on the biosphere. This is the heart of microbial ecology. Part of that involves are looking at the genomes of these bacteria and seeing what can be learned from their DNA sequences (does "actggaccta" look familiar? DNA sequences. Now you can see where they got the title for the film GATTACA.)

Carbon Cycle
Remember the carbon cycle from science class? That features prominently in their research.

The ocean is a good place to study all this. Are you aware that about half of all photosynthesis occurs in the ocean? I didn't know that either until recently. The way Matt describes it is that every other breath you take is filled with oxygen that was generated by photosynthesizing microbes in the ocean. As you can see, these microbes have more to do with you than you realized. Given the complexity of the food web and the complexity of these microbial communities, there are a lot more questions than answers. But isn't that what science is? Continual pursuit...

Microbes in the Ocean
Meet some of the microbes that Matt and his team are investigating. Slide courtesy of Matt Cottrell.

Photos

Dr. Matt Cottrell, Palmer Station, Antarctica
Mrina Nikrad, Palmer Station, Antarctica
Jill Mikucki, Antarctica
Carbon Cycle
Microbes in the Ocean
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Paula Dell's picture
Author: Paula Dell
Expedition: Biology of Antarctic Fishes
Location: Punta Arenas
Weather Summary: Warming up as we make our way North
Temperature: 40.0° F